1990 / Best Director

Film #551: The Grifters (1990)

We now head to 1990 and explore the work of a director who has previously appeared on this journey for helming Best Picture nominees Dangerous Liaison, The Queen and Philomena. From those two titles it’s clear that British director Stephen Frears has had quite the varied career with other projects ranging from low budget homegrown hit My Beautiful Laundrette to one of my favourite films High Fidelity. But his first Best Director nod came for his work on a film that was originally intended to be a project for Martin Scorsese in the form of the adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel The Grifters.

The Grifters is essentially a three hander movie involving Anjelica Huston’s Lily Dillon her estranged son Roy, played by John Cusack, and Roy’s erstwhile love interest Myra portrayed by Annette Bening. The fact that these characters take equal billing is established early on by Frears as the screen splits into three as we watch the trio carrying out various cons. Lily is employed by gangster Bobo to swindle bookies at various racecourses whilst Myra utilises her assets to get what she wants and Roy is more interested in carrying out short cons where he earns a small amount of money in very little time. Lily reunites with her son after he suffers injuries from a con that goes wrong and we start to learn more about the nature of their relationship as well as how Roy got into the grifting game in the first place. What I liked about The Grifters is that it concerned itself in letting us get to know the characters over time rather than bombarding us with plot straight away meaning that by the time we get to the third act we care about what happens. The third act itself is rather gripping stuff as we believe Lily has been murdered by Myra at a motel before learning that the two women swapped places. The final scene, a two-hander between Roy and Lily, is brilliantly handled both by Cusack and Huston with the ultimate outcome shocking me but maybe for the wrong reasons.

Initially when I watched the ending of The Grifters I was a little underwhelmed as I was expecting one more twist before the credits finally rolled. It may be because I’ve seen a large number of con films of the years that I expected what happened not to be the end especially seeing as it was reminiscent of one of Myra’s scams earlier in the movie. But as I mulled over The Grifters I realised that the ending made perfect sense with screenwriter Donald L Westlake, who adapted Thompson’s novel, making sure that we know that it’s actually Lily’s story we’re watching. Huston’s performance as Lily earned her only Best Actress nomination to date and was the perfect continuation of her roles in both Prizzi’s Honor and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Here she is able to combine the con artist side of her character with the more vulnerable one and represent a woman whose best days are behind her. Bening also earned herself a supporting actress nod for portraying the femme fatale of the film and I have to say she gave a dazzling turn as the seductive Myra. Meanwhile John Cusack brought his trademark nervous energy to the role of the charming con man who was torn between his feelings for his mother and the rather sexy siren in his life. Cusack additionally portrayed the sense of distrust in both of the women in his life and to that end acted as the audience’s proxy throughout the course of the film.

Frears’ direction is rather assured as he brings a lot of the stylish shots he employed in his previous work, Dangerous Liaisons, to the world of the con artists. Frears handles the set pieces beautifully and I feel he deserved his nomination for the portion of the film set in the motel which sees Lily apparently being killed by Myra. He also adds a stylish air to the film which is enhanced by the costume and hair design of The Grifters with both Lily and Myra donning similar outfits and hairdos throughout. Also worthy of a mention is Elmer Bernstein, whose score makes The Grifters feel like a film from an earlier time period albeit one with more of a modern look. I’ll explore whether The Grifters deserved a Best Picture nod after I’ve watched one more film from 1990 but I can say that it is a film I enjoyed immensely. From that opening shot onwards I feel that The Grifters gripped me thanks to it’s well-paced script, interesting story and a trio of brilliant performances from Cusack, Huston and Bening.

Next up we look at the other Best Director nominated film from 1990 which also garnered the Best Actor Award that year.

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